Campaign challenges Iowa teachers


A national phenomenon has become local — social-studies teachers across Iowa are having trouble navigating the political discourse when covering the current election in their classrooms.

By Emily Kresse

The reasons this election year is an anomaly are numerous; the two major-party candidates are the least-liked in history, both parties are fragmented, and voters are dissatisfied in record numbers. This has dumbfounded pollsters, political experts, and party members alike. And there’s another group struggling with the implications of this election: Iowa teachers.

Anne La Pietra, who is in her fifth year of teaching, said nothing in her teacher-education classes could have prepared her for the challenges this election has produced. Currently, she has roughly 140 government students at Urbandale High.

“After the second debate, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, how am I supposed to do this with 18-year-olds?’ ” she said.

She’s not alone in this predicament. The National Education Association, which has endorsed Hillary Clinton, launched a campaign to highlight the “Trump Effect,” a term coined by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which analyzed the effect Donald Trump’s rhetoric has had in U.S. classrooms.

Bullying, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment, and fearfulness, mainly of minority students, has risen markedly since Trump announced his candidacy, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s April report “The Trump Effect: The impact of the presidential campaign on our nation’s schools.”

Last week, Jason Kline, the principal of Kennedy High in Cedar Rapids, addressed this issue on Facebook.

“To my students, but especially to the boys: I want to be sure you know. What we have learned about Donald Trump and how he speaks about and treats women is not OK,” Kline wrote on his personal Facebook page. “It’s not OK for a 60-year-old man, it’s not OK for a 13-year-old boy. It’s not OK for anyone.”

More than 18,000 users shared the post, and it received 31,000 “likes” by the afternoon of Oct. 17, but it has since been taken down.

Teachers typically try to remain unbiased when covering elections, but many educators interviewed by The Daily Iowan have said this year, all bets are off.

Joe Judge, a government teacher at Albia High in South-Central Iowa, said election years are inherently difficult, but this one is especially so.

Specifically, he said, there is a disconnect when personal attacks are not allowed in classroom debates but are an everyday occurrence in the presidential rhetoric.

“[My students] say, ‘If the debate has this discourse, then it must be democratic discourse,’ ” he said.

Dave O’Connor, who has taught social studies at Merrill Middle School in Des Moines for 17 years, said he previously worked hard to not let his students know his political views, but this year he has struggled with how to have a candid class discussion without revealing which candidate he backs.

“I have kids whose parents are going to vote for Trump. So how do I teach these things, like rigged elections, without coming across as biased?” he said. “I’m sure I’ll get phone calls however I do it.”

Mount Vernon High social-studies teacher Ed Timm, however, said he chooses to acknowledge his bias head-on instead of trying to subvert it.

“I always am very clear about what my position is and whom I support,” he said. “Anytime you’re teaching someone something, they should know where you’re coming from. Because no matter what you say, you’re going to have a level of bias.”

Although he has not had to change how he addresses his own bias, Trump has made it harder to remain professional, he said.

“It’s hard to walk in there and keep a straight face with some of the things Trump has said and some of the things that have been said about him,” Timm said. “You never thought in an education setting that you’d be talking about ‘groping.’ ”

Ryan Williams, a senior at Mount Vernon High who is taking Timm’s government course this fall, said his teacher has used past elections to highlight the differences.

“I’m glad I’m taking [government] during an election year because it really does help having it going on outside of school,” he said. “I wish it wasn’t this election.”

Although he is not yet eligible to vote, Tyler McGuire has followed the election, and it has been brought up in both his U.S. history and humanities classes.

The Cedar Rapids Washington junior identifies as a “conservatarian,” meaning he ideologically straddles the Republican and Libertarian Parties, which puts him at odds with his predominantly liberal peers.

“My teachers for the most part make me feel included when I do choose to participate,” he said.

Washington High social-studies teacher Frank Scherrman said his classroom conversations so far have raised good questions, but he worries they could easily get out of hand.

“Kids ask questions like, ‘Has there been anything like this before?’ ” he said. “I say, ‘No.’ And then, people ask, ‘Why has it changed?’ ” he said. “It does bring up good conversations about how things have changed, especially the civility of it.”

Kirstin Sullivan, who teaches government at Ames High, said teaching ideology is not her place, but this year is no longer about ideology, it is a question of morality.

“I decided a few weeks ago that I would discuss the policy positions of both parties but try to make it less about the candidates,” she wrote in an email.  “In recent days, I told students that I was no longer going to treat Donald Trump as a candidate equal to Hillary Clinton.  As a teacher, I would be doing a disservice to my students to allow his horrible rhetoric to be viewed as ‘normal’ in an election.”

Iowa City West High senior Maggie Terry, who is currently enrolled in advanced-placement government, said her teacher has wrestled with how to compare the two candidates, too.

“[Brady Shutt] said it’s really hard to teach the class in an unbiased way because to present the candidates as being equal — I mean he can’t even repeat some of Trump’s comments in a classroom because he’d be fired,” she said, referencing the recent Trump tape scandal.

Despite having to deal with such a controversial election, classroom discussions have allowed for productive, informative, and often heated dialogue, she said, but “it’s definitely a lot more civil than the debates.”

EPI Editor Mitch McAndrew contributed to this story.